Coal’s Dangers

The explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Comfort, W.Va., has shown a bright light on our broken system of mine supervision and regulation.

But stricter regulation of mines like Upper Big Branch, while necessary, ultimately will not address the real dangers, because extractive industries are by their nature destructive and potentially deadly.

Massey Energy, which owns the mine, has been hit with scores of violations, racking up thousands of dollars in fines.

“The mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, has a significant history of safety violations, including 57 infractions just last month for (among other things) not properly ventilating the highly combustible methane,” The Huffington Post reported. Methane venting problems appear to be what caused the blast, which killed 29 miners.

The need for improved safety oversight and regulation is obvious. The mine was not unionized and it suffered from what appears to be an industry-wide thirst for profits at the expense of safety. So boosting inspections and giving government agencies that tools with which to bite into coal company profits can only help.

The problem goes deeper than safety gear, inspections and fines. The problem is coal, itself. Coal requires physical extraction, which places miners in great danger and badly damages the environment.

Like oil — the subject of a must-read book by Peter Maass, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil — coal is killing the planet. Extraction of the minerals used to generate energy, even with new technologies, is horribly intrusive and will become more so in the future.

“The world offers a multitude of environmental disasters created by extractive industries that dig for oil, gold, silver or other minerals,” Mr. Maass writes. “Calling these events ‘tragedies’ may not be right, because the word implies a course of events that went in an unexpected direction, like an early death, a sudden landslide, a plane crash. Mineral ecocides have happened often enough and predictably enough to be cast as the order of things.”

Coal advocates argue that, because coal is responsible for generating more than half of our electricity, we have to live with the dangers. The alternative, they say, is more expensive power. That’s because the real costs of coal are not factored — damage to the environment from mining, pollution caused by runoff, both from mining and burning, ash and smoke and sludge that is created as a byproduct of the process of turning coal into energy.

The National Research Council, in a 2009 report, found that “total annual external damages from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter created by burning coal at 406 coal-fired power plants, which produce 95% of the nation’s coal-generated electricity, were about $62 billion,” or about 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. To put that in perspective, the average kilowatt-hour price to consumers for electricity is 10 cents. That means we pay only three quarters of the actual price for the electricity we use.

The same goes for the prices of other extractive energy sources, which also do not reflect the cost of environmental and other damage cause not just buy burning fuel sources. That’s why clean coal and off-shore oil drilling are not the answer to our energy needs.

Burning oil as fuel fouls the air, rots the ozone layer and poisons us and the rest of the planet, while the residue of car exhausts, which lines our streets and highways, gets washed into our aquifers. Burning coal does the same, while also leaving massive wounds in the earth and wrecking the ecosystem.

We cannot address these issues by drilling for more oil or by investing in the mirage of clean coal. Our only hope is to find sustainable, realistic and inexpensive replacements for oil and other fossil fuels. (This should rule out nuclear power).

As Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone reporter who covers the coal industry told Keith Olbermann in the aftermath of the West Virginia mining disaster, the only way to prevent similarly deadly accidents “is to stop mining and burning coal.”

Hank Kalet is a newspaper editor in central New Jersey. E-mail

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010

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